Confessions from the Pantry Part 1: The Awesome Power of the Condiment

I can’t follow a recipe worth a damn, even when I try. And I’m an incurably lazy cook. More than 3 pots…hmmm, I have another pot around here somewhere…. More than 4 steps…oof…how about I just start with canned chicken broth? It’s a shameful thing for a food-lover and admirer of the farm-to-table / slow-food movement to admit, but there it is. A not-so-well-kept secret. I’m a quarter French, and in France we pick cassoulet up over in Aisle 12. (Okay, some are raising ducks, rendering fat and growing their own beans, but those industrious genes went to my siblings.)

My kitchen talents lie in creating something palatable from the random elements of a picked-over pantry. The Top Chef challenge I’d have a shot at? The Quickie Mart competition. Let’s see, corn nuts, blue Icee and gum…I’m thinking an appetizer of opposing tastes and textures. Okay so maybe not, but at the risk of sounding like a certain chicken-nugget-spewing “semi-homemade” Stepford wife on the Food Network, the right staples and condiments are my key to banging out decent unplanned meals.

My fridge holds a battalion of encrusted jars of mysterious origin and frightening expiration dates. The basics, of course: Worcestershire, Tabasco and oyster sauce. Pepperoncini, olives, pickles (kosher, dill, bread & butter). Fermented black beans, green curry, sambal olek, crab paste and tamarind juice. Cheap lumpfish caviar (thanks for the Ikea tip, Cyn!). Tahini, that must-have for emergency hummus, and with which I’m still trying to replicate Al Amir’s roasted vegetables.

And on and on……..

img_1092Tubes of emergency salvation (paprika paste, tomato paste, anchovy paste) that invariably slide down behind the jars, losing themselves for months (oh hell, who am I kidding? years) behind the walnut oil, kimchee and green peppercorns.

How long will an open jar of sun-dried tomatoes in oil keep? No, not what does the label say, how long do you REALLY think they’ll keep? They’re priceless for topping crostini for unexpected guests (and there are always feta dregs and pinenuts in the crisper…). Five of those suckers whizzed with a half-glass of old red wine turned mediocre pasta sauce into something quite delicious the other night. And admittedly, it only takes a few minutes to roast and peel red peppers, but what if you’re staring into a vacant fridge for inspiration and are not willing to battle the store? Or weren’t willing to pay a ridiculous dollar-a-pepper? Or finally unearth the pepper you remember seeing, only to find it sadly shrunk, shriveled and shivering in a forgotten corner of your fridge? Or the dried tomatoes in oil have developed mold and because you love your friends and don’t want to be responsible for their death, you need a replacement? What was the point of this paragraph? Oh yeah, jarred peppers.

tagu1Then there’s the king of the condiments, tagu. Whether you think of it as squid candy or hot, sesame jerky, even timid eaters love this sticky, orange, chewy, sweet, spicy, sesame-oil drenched Korean treat. An ambitious chef would undoubtedly make her own, building character—and muscle—shredding the dried fish. I, however, buy it at Pal Do (61st and SE Foster) for $4.99 and “fix it” with more sesame oil and hot pepper. Roll it into a strip of seaweed or lettuce, dollop on some pepper paste…. BB, your assignment is find the perfect cocktail accompaniment to this bite of delight. (And thank you for the beauty shot…dried squid has never looked so glam.)

Since (wo)man can’t live on the pickled and fermented alone, my micro-pantry (a two-shelf, thigh-high corner spinny-cabinet) hides cous-cous, canned hominy, coconut milk and tuna. A range of canned beans: white bean salad with olive oil tuna? Dinner’s ready! Black bean and corn salad with cilantro and salsa? Three-bean salad, hummus, chili? Done, done and done. I have stacks of dried legumes too, admittedly so much better, but those take forethought and don’t fit the sleazy theme of this post. And on to noodles…pastas covering the Italian heritage, gray Korean yam noodles, Japanese rice noodles and Chinese lo mein supporting my Asian bits.

Ohhhh, did I forget to mention pre-made sauces? (What would a confession be without the really embarrassing admissions?) Although the collection has shrunk in recent years after reading labels and trying to avoid corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, I wouldn’t know how to make my quick pozole without those tiny cans of Herdez tomatillo and casera salsa. And how could I make a five-minute meal with leftover chicken bits and frozen peas without Trader Joes Masala sauce? No peas? No chicken? No problem, there are always garbanzos and frozen spinach at hand. And while I can make a legit Thai dressing when backed into a corner, who will know that you’ve plopped that disgusting sweet chili sauce (I’d guess 5 plops) into the fish sauce, ginger, garlic and lime juice in place of cane sugar and chiles? I’ve even resorted, on occasion, to topping the salad with pre-roasted, salted peanuts rather than frying my own, and god help me, k. prefers the short-cut version. Polish heretic.

Are there lows even I won’t sink to? Yes. (Fake lemon juice and pre-peeled garlic come to mind.) But we each have to find our own way, and answer to our own higher power.

Odd to celebrate laziness / shortcuts / unhealthy habits during my “year in the slow lane” (if you talk to k., do me a favor and call it 10 months). I have NO excuse for a fridge devoid of fresh veggies, sides of meat in need of butchering and an array of tinctures from which to make my own sauces. But bad habits are hard to break. And since someday I’ll be back to 65-hour-workweeks, it would be a shame to get rusty. Plus, I am taking this time to ditch some truly disgusting habits, and work out some new 15-minute dinners. I recently found an even more convenient form of one of my convenience food staples (oh the wonders of the modern world!) but that’s a topic for another day……….


  1. bb Said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    From personal experience supping at your table, there is no shame to be felt out of your fridge door/Lost World of the Pantry creations. I only wish my brain could create like yours. I just toss that old stuff I used…maybe…once out, thanking god no one is looking over my shoulder, ranting about out-of-control food costs.

    Oh boy…another cocktail challenge!! The tagu-thirst quenching research will begin immediately. Um, do you have any extra tagu I can experiment with? You know, now that I’m watching food costs……

  2. Cyn Said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    But what happens when you really, really, really need a shot of lemon for the asparaus soup you just made and your ‘fresh’ lemon is moldy? I can’t sleep at night without the bottle of fake lemon juice secured on my fridge door. Even though, I save even the tiniest wedge of left over lemon…just in case…

    Ummm, just yesterday, pitched a can of fermented black beans, date stamped July 1, 2001.

    Dustin would appreciate this blog post. His introduction to this family involved cleaning my refrigerator. Maybe he’ll share that experience! LOL!

  3. Cyn Said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    PS…not even a honorable mention to the jar of KimChee I see in your fridge door?

  4. Jill Said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    I’ll love you forever if you figure out how to recreate those Al Amir roasted veggies – then teach me! I LOVE those! I could have only a plate of those veggies for dinner there and be in heaven.

    I, too, have “supped” (thanks B!) at your table many a night and am thinking now that maybe I DON’T want to know all the tricks you use for the many delicious meals! But I’ve never gotten sick, so I believe you when you say you love your friends too much to experiment will long past expiration dates!

    Right now I’m craving your cabbage salad (with chicken)! You know it’s one of my faves. And yes, I have the recipe – and have even made it at home – but yours always tastes better! Must be a mysterious condiment…

  5. dds Said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Cyn, 2001…priceless! And I thought of Dustin’s wide-eyed wonder as he cleaned your fridge when I wrote this. LOL

    JW, let’s make an Al Amir date to refresh the taste memory! I’ve only been there once and it’s been years.

    BB, I can’t decide if bourbon / rye would complement or be too sweet, or if gin would clash or be pleasantly astringent. Tequila may even be the right base…get mixing, man!

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